Public Influence: How Police Officers Have Prevented "Jump!" Chants
California Penal Code Section 401 states, "Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony."
Andrew J. Nilsen
In this week's feature story, "Public Influence," multiple people violated this law. As Dylan Yount stood on the ledge 100 feet up, spectators in the crowd yelled things like "Jump!" and "Do it already!" It worked the way mobs usually work, starting with one brash person caught up in a moment of cruel ignorance. Then someone else wanted in on the laughs. Soon, they fed off each other, soaking in the chuckles, until eventually the shouts were coming every few seconds.
Would Dylan have jumped if those people hadn't dared him to? Impossible to know. What we do know, however, is that two dozen or so police officers were at the scene. And there is no evidence that any of them attempted to silence the yellers.
That's not always the case.
In 1984, a college student stood on top of a water tank in Campbell. He threatened to jump. According to newspaper reports, a San Mateo man named Nathan Biggs allegedly yelled "Jump!" Police on the scene immediately arrested him.
Capt. Ron Eddlemon told the Mojave Daily that the officers arrested 26-year-old Biggs because "If they hadn't, other people in the crowd might have taken up the chant."
The man on the tower was talked down, and Biggs was booked into jail on charges of "encouraging a suicide, a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison," according to the Daily.
The suicide encouragement law is in the books, in one form or another, in most jurisdictions. In August 2011, for example, two Salem, Mass., teenagers were arrested for yelling "Jump!" at a "distraught young man on the roof" whom authorities were trying to take to a mental hospital, according to the Salem News:
From the crowd came the voices of two men, [Prosecutor Matthew] Hemond said: [19-year-old David] Duchesne, who yelled, "Jump, you (expletive expletive)," and a second man, Timothy Fleury, 20, of Beverly, who also allegedly yelled "Jump," then goaded the troubled man with, "You won't do it."
The yellers were charged with disorderly conduct. The man on the roof eventually came down safely.
In both of the above cases, local police eliminated the potential for mob behavior by extinguishing the initial sparks. Groups don't start off as mobs. They become mob-like once individuals see others violate social laws with no consequences -- whether it's throwing a steel chair through a Starbucks window or yelling "jump" at a man on a ledge. And then there's a whole bunch of troublemakers and police can't arrest them all.
But if you see one guy -- the first guy perhaps -- get arrested after yelling "jump", you're much less likely to yell "jump."